“The pilgrims of the Spanish-speaking countries pray for you, Holy Father,” intoned an Archbishop (I think that’s what he was?). Below where I sat sweating under the an unseasonably hot Roman sun, perhaps a thousand of the massed faithful erupted into cheers and flag-waving. Pope Francis leaned forward in his plain leather chair, speaking into the mic in Italian. In his address, he reminded us that we are not slaves, but “children, and pilgrims.” I noticed that the metal roof above his head was hinged. I’m guessing that, if there was a danger, the entire roof section could swing down as a shield. This Pope seems uninterested in shielding. A group beside me, from Michigan, fanned themselves. One of the younger women looked up from her smart phone: “I found a lunch spot but it’s at least three-quarters of a mile away. Can you walk that far?” An older man – her father? – lifted his baseball cap and grumbled: “It’s part of being a pilgrim, I guess.” So much pilgrim language. Meanwhile Pope Francis had left his chair. He looked much happier than he had while separated from the crowds. Now he beamed, reaching out to touch people, extending his arms in blessing, shaking hands, smiling broadly. All around me, people were lifting children over their heads, pressing rosaries forward, shouting: “Pappi! Pappi!” Francis leaned over the barrier to a couple in full wedding dress, the young man grinning from ear to ear. The bride, all in white, pressed a photo into the Pope’s hand. As I watched, he blessed it, then, while he blessed the couple as well, a man in a black suit behind him took the photo from his hand, and passed it to another black suit, who handed it to a third man in sunglasses, who walked away from the scrum, idly checking his cell phone. He opened a white plastic bin and placed the photo inside. To my mind, all the elements of pilgrimage came together in that moment: presence, story, a holy terrain, and a material and spiritual transaction. The young couple, via their photo, had reached their pilgrim destination. As had I.
With thanks to my fellow pilgrim, Archbishop Don, for arranging my participation.
Heritage Saskatchewan sponsored film-maker Kristin Catherwood, who made this short film for the Canada 150 year. It features me and Hugh Henry, talking about the importance of the Swift Current – Battleford Trail, the 350 km trek we finished in August 2017. Thanks Kristin!
Produced by CBC Radio One producer Amanda Klang, Sara Terreault and my annual trek with students from Old Montreal to Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory finally hit the national airwaves! Here’s the short soundscape that appeared on Tapestry on Oct 15, 2017. See the website for accompanying photos and text:
Here’s a new, five minute video on journey in Indigenous and Settler spaces! In it, I explore the ways in which Indigenous journey and Settler journey may lead to new ways of seeing the past and the future. It’s meant as an introduction for teaching, but it’s for everyone!
(the following is the impact statement that I wrote for the SK History and Folklore Society, who requested it to forward to their funding agencies. Those of you who have followed the walk in some way may find it worthwhile)
The Swift Current – Battlefords Trail walk certainly affected me personally. In addition I was witness to a number of ways in which it had an impact on communities and individuals we encountered. Firstly, although the historical connection between the Métis community and the Trail is well known, I believe that the linking of our first day’s walk with the Métis celebration in Swift Current solidified that connection. I was touched by the accompanying Red River cart and the members of the Métis community who walked the first steps of the Trail with us. Another community – or set of communities – that now have a greater knowledge of the Trail are the Hutterite colonies that we passed through. Our very positive interactions, especially with the Swift Current Colony meant that the members of the Colony learned something of the history of the Trail that passes through their land. We got the fresh cinnamon buns – they got a history lesson, and some local human geography! Thanks to our Trek organizer and guide Hugh Henry for laying the groundwork here, as he did in every other way.
When we met individual farmers as we walked, the reaction, almost without fail, was the same: interest in what we were doing, and most often, some positive but nostalgic comment about the Trail, almost as if it was a thing that had belonged to a past (perhaps their parents or grandparents’ generation) that they were surprised might still be considered important, but very quickly agreed should be important. In other cases, farmers who hosted us joined the walk briefly, for a day or part of a day, and told us of their own family histories and how they intersected with the histories of the Trail. In most cases their recollections were of the important early settlement history. In a very natural way, those of us who were walkers were able to include the First Nations and Métis aspects of the Trail’s history without in any way belittling the important personal and family histories they were recounting, bringing (I hope) the first steps toward some kind of integration of those histories. In a few cases local farmers joined us in the daily smudges led by one of our Métis walkers, Richard Kotowich.
An important result of such a marathon effort as this trek – and one of my reasons for walking personally – is to reinforce in the public mind, quietly and with respect for landowners, the idea that there do exist, on private land, trails of public importance, which need to be preserved and to which the public should have some limited rights of access. There is no fear, in Saskatchewan, of hordes of trekkers taking to the Battleford Trail! At the same time, the Trail is part of the commonwealth of history, and importantly, for three very different communities: the First Nations, the Métis, and the Settler. I have great respect for the occasional farmer or rancher who decides not to break some of the land that still bears the marks of the carts, for the public good. Our walk was, in a very small way, a call to such civic-mindedness.
We did not plan it this way, but our walk through the Biggar and Battlefords regions coincided with some breaking news about the trial process in the manslaughter charge connected to the death of Coulton Boushie. Whether it was in our minds, or in the air, it did feel as if the tensions increased, both when we stayed on the Mosquito First Nation, and when we passed by farms in the area, many of which were plastered with “No Trespassing” signs we had not seen further south. Perhaps our stay on the Mosquito FN helped those who were there realize that there are many Settlers who are trying to reach out and to learn from them; I hope so. Perhaps, at the same time, the fact that a group that was primarily of Euro-Canadian background sought to be guests on the Reserve helped some of the non-Indigenous folks we encountered in that area realize that the two solitudes can perhaps be bridged by folks of good-will on both sides. The matter, of course, is more complex than a single group of walkers might influence, but I hope that we were, if nothing else, a living sign of what the very first steps in seeking reconciliation might look like.
Finally, the Trail walk was important to me personally. When I grew up in the Swift Current and Simmie regions of the south-west corner of Saskatchewan, we learned about the “Indians”, as we called them then. If we thought of them at all, it was as important people who no longer lived anywhere close to us. No one – including me – ever seemed to wonder why the First Nations no longer ranged over those areas. I only learned much later, as an adult, that many, including Big Bear’s Plains Cree, sought Treaty lands exactly where I grew up, but were pushed north, often starving and in poor clothing, during the winter, by the policies of the Dominion government and the railroad. Walking this Battleford Trail, generally in comfort with more than enough food and a good tent or occasionally a hotel room, we were walking the Trail that they once walked, starving, not much more than a century and a quarter ago.
Thanks to Hugh Henry, Harold Steppuhn, Ken Wilson and local farmers, the trek taught me the geography of the land where I was raised. I learned about the “Eagle Hills”, the “Bear Hills” and the “Bad Hills”, about NWMP outposts and glacial moraines and ancient inland seas, about soil formations and water drainage, about poplar trees and prairie grasses. Such learnings, added to my first visits to communities like Sanctuary, Greenan and Herschel, and made in the company of other pilgrims who became like family, made it a very rich three weeks. I blogged about the Trail and had hundreds of reads of my blog posts, both in Canada and internationally. Thanks to the Saskatchewan Historical and Folklore Society, and especially to my friend and co-walker Hugh Henry, for making this walk possible.
Yesterday was the last day of the Battleford Trail walk. 350 kilometres in total, Hugh Henry tells us. Along the way we read journal excerpts from one of Colonel Otter’s troops as they marched north along the same path in 1885. The writer was a young, green recruit from central Canada who’d probably never seen either a First Nations person or the plains. He wrote: “We saw our first Indian today. He was within rifle distance.” Richard Kotowich, who is Métis, gave a short and powerful talk as he smudged us. “How do we measure the distance? Do we still measure it like that unnamed soldier? Close enough to harm? Close enough to be defensive? Or have we learned to say: ‘the Indian’ we meet is close enough to greet, to get to know, to invite to eat, to sit together and learn from and with?”
This pilgrimage, for me, has been about things old AND things new. The Trail is as old as the Plains Cree that went south to hunt bison, the burial grounds that go back millennia, the Bear Hills that now seem so empty. But the Trail is also as new as the ‘no trespassing’ signs and the farm dogs we met as we approached Battleford, a town which, as a local citizen told us, has “13 reservations around it.” He didn’t add that it was our own government that put them there, often against their will and miles away from their traditional lands, for the convenience of railway and Settler. This trek has been about remembering that Métis, First Nations and Settler all used this trail. It has been about smudging with farm families who in some cases perhaps have never participated before in such a ceremony, and making them welcome. It has been about including First Nations concerns in our conversations naturally, neither preaching nor apologizing, just quietly and consistently recognizing the facts of the Treaties, the expulsions, and the injustices. It has also been about listening to the older farm folks who talk about the coulees and valleys, the rivers and the land and the wildlife with such love and longing that you know the land has taught them, over years. So how DO we measure the distance between Settler and First Nation? We danced with the First Nations dancers in Fort Battleford, but it was just a beginning. For those of us who are non-Indigenous, even after a 350 km Battleford Trek, we have a ways still to travel.
Tonight we’re guests in the band hall of Mosquito FN. I can say ‘guests’ because tomorrow we leave, unlike the first European ‘guests’ who stayed in this land and took over. The good folks here laid out food for us and welcomed us in, smudging the table before we ate. Steve dropped in to have some food. He’s Assiniboine but speaks Cree, because that’s what’s taught in the local school. Helen, who is a residential school survivor, dropped by and told her story. So generous. All I can think about is the manslaughter case before the courts, a death of an Indigenous young man that occurred on a ‘white’ farm not far from here. No one has mentioned it yet.
So yesterday, at Cando SK there was a stiff breeze. I set up my tent, but didn’t peg it down, and went to help others. Judy Erickson turned around: ‘is that your tent?’ My tent was rolling away like a thistle, half a field away. I caught it finally just before it reached the paved road. This morning, which was cold, dewy, wet and still, Fred put his tent to dry in the ramp space of the community hall. ‘It’s my tent escape prevention mechanism’ he teased me.
At four km an hour, you notice different things. The little garter snake, length and width of a pencil, stopped on the gravel road but turning and trying to snap at your hiking stick when you check it out. The red-tailed hawk that circles above, complaining at your presence (or welcoming you to the land?). The golden fawn that bolts from the brush ahead and in three bounds, is back into the impenetrable bush. The badgers, the skunks, the coyotes, the yellow butterflies that jump up from a wet depression in the dirt road to flutter, a blessed cloud, around you as you walk. The chokecherries, much too sour for life in the city where there is chocolate and café au lait, but on this walk a welcome juicy mouthful for which you are immensely grateful. Maybe that is the word that sums it all up: grateful. For life at four km/hr.